Family travel with flair

Returning to Taos

TweetNobody in my family can agree what age I was, or any of us kids were, when we stopped coming to Taos, New Mexico for the summer. My dad taught graduate art school there, so every summer my parents would load up the station wagon with everything we’d need for 6 weeks. We rented a house from a local woman or stayed in a condo in the ski valley and had the kind of experience people complain kids don’t get anymore. We built a “dirt slide” (does what is says on the tin) in the forest and spent an entire summer ruining our jeans on it. We picked wild strawberries and discovered centipedes (Don’t touch it or it might kill you!) and when our parents were with us, we went to the Tastee-Freez for ice cream cones or hiked up Wheeler Peak or visited galleries that officially were “boring” even if we had fun once we got there. Like all good things, it came to an end. Now for the first time I’ve returned to Taos with my parents and brother and his family. So many things are just like I remember from childhood. We’ll round in a corner in the car and there is the post office where I spent, like, *hours* waiting for my mother to post something. There’s Michael’s Kitchen with chocolate covered crullers as mouth-watering decades later. There’s the hotel outside which my sister got the autograph of Dennis Weaver, who played TV cowboy detective Dennis McCloud. Of course so many things are different: There’s the mountain looming up and it’s more beautiful, the sky more striking than I ever recalled. The laundromat where we used to see the hippies washing all the jeans from the commune has been torn down in favour of a new shopping centre. The Tastee Freez has been replaced with a burger joint. The school where my dad held classes looks familiar but we circle round, trying to find something that looks like the picture in our minds. Life goes on. We grew up. My children experience a whole new version. Yesterday we visited the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge as a family. The bridge stands 565 feet above the Rio Grande, the 7th highest bridge in America, with awe-inspiring views over the gorge and the mountains. Shadows of clouds pass over the stark landscape. From miles away you can see the streak of rainstorms moving in. As a child, I found it exciting. As a parent, my ankles went all...

Returning to New York City…as a mother

TweetI spent 10 of my most formative years in New York City — those in my 20s and early 30s, drinking, dining, dating, working and generally becoming what passes for an adult. Then I left for London and a British life with my husband. I love London, but New York is still my spiritual home. That just makes it all the stranger that my kids have never been there. My daughter did make a brief appearance at 4 months old, doing the rounds to meet my close friends. I remember virtually nothing of that trip except that we stayed in a corporate apartment in midtown that my husband had organised through his job. I anxiously warmed formula and baby rice and put her to bed in a pop-up travel cot I’d borrowed from a friend. Since then I’ve been back to visit friends on my own, doing the drinking and dining thing (dating is on hold per my husband’s instructions), and generally acting like a long lost New Yorker. This Easter however, I will be returning with my husband, my 9-year-old and my 14-year-old — a family. I will be experiencing the city for the first time as a mother. Visiting New York with kids That means for the first time I’m researching things kids do in the city (funny enough, hitting my favourite cafes before shoe shopping isn’t anywhere on the list). I’m debating the merits of the Guggenheim versus the Moma versus the Natural History Museum for the under-21s and wondering just how many we can cram in. I’m getting advice from friends of friends of places I didn’t even know existed, like the M&M store where you can get your face put on one of the candies and the Sony Wonder Technology Lab. It’s literally a whole new world. The city has gotten a lot more kid-friendly and kid-cooler than when I lived there. I’ll get to visit sights I haven’t been to since my mother and father came to visit while I living in a Brooklyn apartment next to Prospect Park, like the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. (Everybody knows the *real* New Yorkers only see those things when family comes to town.) Will they fall in love, like I did? My own love affair with New York began during a cross-country trip with my parents and brother and sister in our yellow station wagon. Back then, Times Square was still a scary place to walk late at night. When we arrived...

The latest great American import: the doggy bag

TweetThe list of things America has given the food world is substantial: Velveeta, the Hard Rock cafe, the list goes on. But now one of our most widespread contributions has finally gained purchase on English soil: the doggy bag. So simple a concept. After your restaurant meal that you’ve paid for, you take home what you haven’t eaten to enjoy later. That might mean having yummy leftovers after a late-night drinking binge, say, or for breakfast when you just fancy some fajitas or beef and broccoli instead of Wheetabix. Now chefs Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Thomasina Miers are championing the use of goody bags and even some high-end restaurants are offering them. I know what most Brits are thinking, because it’s what my husband thought the first time he visited my hometown: “Why are all these waiters urging me to take home a box of food I didn’t eat the first time round?” In America it’s simple – because there’s no possible way (unless you’re dining in a trendy NYC eaterie with minuscule portions) that you could eat your entire entree. The food is piled high to gravity-defying proportions. The mashed potatoes evoke Richard Dreyfus’s mountain, the enchiladas hang off the edge of the plate. And don’t forget the two side dishes that come with your entree and the free trip to the dessert bar. But we don’t have those Grand Canyon portions here. Isn’t taking home a box of food on the Tube just too embarrassing and un-British? From experience I can definitively say: Maybe. The Brit in my life still finds it amusing in America when our waiter Tad asks not if we want a box but how many (and reacts with confusion if we decline). But slowly over time, after seeing the kids happily chow down on second-time-round pizza or avoiding cooking one evening as we combine (thoroughly) reheated chicken with fresh veg from the crisper drawer, he’s come around. We won’t request a doggy bag from Claridge’s (although we could!), but nothing’s wrong — and a lot is right — in not letting food go to waste....

Why Americans should love Guy Fawkes night

TweetEverybody needs a holiday during which you can squirm with anticipation until nightfall, burn your fingers on spent sparklers, and singe your hair while lighting firecrackers. I grew up celebrating Fourth of July in Texas, but I quite like Guy Fawkes Night here in the UK. Not only does it get darker earlier (hurrah!) but you have that crisp chill in the air and the bloodthirsty backstory. It’s too bad that the effigy thing has faded in recent years. I quite like the idea of throwing someone on the fire and dancing around it. (Too bad you have to keep your clothes on….) On our BritMums blogger network, several members told us who they’d roast. In recent years there’s been some handwringing in the media that evil ol’ Halloween is edging out Guy Fawkes in people’s hearts and mind. Tell that to my daughter and stepson. They enjoy Halloween but November 5th is a full-on affair: everyone gets into the act. Dad orchestrates the sparklers and rockets, I buy those boxes of fireworks that you light with one fuse and it goes off like choreography, grandpa and granny provide the back-garden venue in the country and do the appropriate “oohs” and “aahhs”. Alternatively, if we’re in town we make a night of it, attending the school’s fireworks display where 300 kids run around with glowsticks, drinking juice boxes and squealing at the bonfire. From an outsider perspective, I confess I still don’t entirely “get” celebrating an almost-terrorist act. I think that comes from being an immigrant rather than a native. On the other side, I know that Fourth of July is a Stateside thing, that Halloween is something that, creepily, we Americans do best. Every year my husband asks (again) about the provenance of Thanksgiving, and I’m like, “Wha? I can’t believe you don’t know….” until I remember that during his primary school years he was never once cast as a pilgrim or a curiously acquiescent “Indian”. Yet while the celebration isn’t hardwired for me, Bonfire Night – with the traditional soup, sausages and jacket potatoes cooked in the fire – is one of those holidays I’ll defend to the death. With each passing year, I learn a little bit more about it and remember the bits that I’ve learned already. I no longer need to be reminded on which day it falls. It’s British, it’s traditional, it involve explosives and the threat of blowing your hand off if your parents aren’t vigilant. Two out of three of those...

The definitive map of the world according to Americans?

TweetOne of the challenges as an American abroad – both living and travelling – are the preconceptions people have about us. You know – childlike, fat, shorts-wearing jingoists. Anyone who knows me, knows this isn’t universally true of Americans. I, for one, hardly ever wear shorts. I’ll leave it up to you to decide the accuracy of this map, sent to me by Sarah Ebner who writes the Times’s School Gate blog. Source: Photos of Awesome Shit My First Sergeant Said, via Facebook...

Playtime is over for New York parents

TweetWhat does any NYC parent worth his or her salt do when they feel their child’s nursery education is not up to snuff? Of course – they sue. The Times wrote yesterday about the lawsuit brought byNicole Imprescia against her daughter’s preschool. You can read that piece on the Times’s site (even if you’re not a subscriber, for £1 you got all of the stories from today’s paper plus extra content on the website. Go on, you know you want to). I lived in New York City for a decade, which is probably why I wasn’t completely surprised by the story. Find out why in the guest post I’ve done on the Times’s School Gate blog. There are also some great comments on the New York Times’s Motherlode blog, including this from one dad: $19K? How about $32K? That’s what I pay for daycare! Is that what they mean by a New York state of mind? Photo: © NYC & Company...

Disney Dream cruises: good for family – and adult – fun

Tweet All cruise ships are big but on the new Disney Dream ship (1,250 staterooms, 14 decks) if you want a break from the children as they play on deck 5, you can have a drink in Hong Kong. Or New York or Paris, depending on the day. A panaromic LCD screen at The Skyline bar (deck 4 aft) provides the vista; the knowledgeable young bartender pours the cocktails. Among the other 4 bars and nightclub in “The District” area for over-18s are a champagne bar (the you-are-inside-the-flute bubble effects go live in February), a lounge with pianist and torch singer, and a disco with flashing floor lights (eat your heart out, Tony Manero). At the other end of the age range and ship is the Oceaneer Club for kids up to age 10 (with playscapes, themed rooms, organised activities and an innovative interactive PlayFloor – more on that later) and Vibe, a teens-only area with groovy furniture, TV and games and a teens-only sundeck. There are family musical theatre shows and casual restaurants as well as a spa, an adults-only pool – with swim-up bar of course – and high-end French and Continental dining. To a “Disney virgin” like me (am I even allowed to say those two words together?), it’s a surprise that a cruise originated by the Mouse – the company’s first ship to launch in 10 years – is as adept at amusing adults as it is the kids. “It’s gotta be a great fun vacation but let’s not treat the family as a single unit,” is how Tom Stagg, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resort, describes the philosophy. Yet the ship’s real trick is that it feels friendly, cohesive and enjoyable no matter which demographic you fall under at any particular time. Your parent self doesn’t have to exist on another planet from your adult self. Just, perhaps, on a different deck. That’s easier than ever on the Dream. It’s vastly larger than the company’s other ships – two decks taller and 1,900 beds bigger. (This review comes after of a press trip* on the ship’s chistening voyage.) Playing Goofy Golf on deck Sunbathing, schmoozing and cocktails at the over-18s pool A view of Hong Kong at the Skyline bar Private dining room in Palo Starck Louis Ghost chairs in Pink Kids play on the PlayFloor in the Oceaneer Lab (Diana Zalucky, photographer) A lounge in teen area Vibe Waterbikes at Castaway Cay Andy’s Room in the Oceaneer Club   Expect the kids...

Thanksgiving and 7 weird American foods

TweetToday is Thanksgiving and this week I discovered the special “Thanksgiving” tab on Ocado shopping. I’ve never been so horrified in my entire life. I was expecting turkey and fresh green beans and pumpkin puree for pies, and they did have those things. But otherwise this special section doesn’t reflect very well on us Americans. Instead of potatoes, hams and yams, Ocado has Marshmallow Fluff (I don’t even know…), Stove Top brand instant stuffing, Jollytime microwave popcorn, Pop-Tarts, Froot Loops – all the traditional E numbers enjoyed by the Pilgrims and Native Americans. Still, whenever I get high and mighty about anti-American snobbery, I’m reminded of my strolls through American supermarkets which yield a cornucopia of  intriguing “food” stuffs: aisles and aisles of convenience-ised, “fun”-ed up, hydrogenated products that seem just this side of edible. Yet I have a bit of a soft spot for all this weird food. I grew up on it, or grew up desperate for my parents to buy it instead of whole wheat bread and okra. It represents the triumph of industry over common sense. You can’t get these kind of items over here (I imagine they violate Health & Safety rules) so I won’t be partaking of them. But today, I give thanks for these very American foods: * Sno-Balls – Hot pink round balls – made of cake perhaps? – and rolled in coconut. As my friend Nancy from Park Slope Parents remarked, sadly they don’t taste as good as they look. * Twinkies – A classic that’s so ingrained in the American psyche that a writer wrote a book about the ingredients, even going 1,600 feet underground to see where one ingredient is mined (you read that right), which in turn inspired a photographer’s Twinkie ingredient project. * Betty Crocker spray icing – It really does what it says on the tin. * Jimmy Dean Blueberry Pancake and Sausage on a Stick – This is not a satiric breakfast meal…but it could be! A sausage nestled in the warm embrace of a pancake sprinkled with blueberries, then the whole thing is jammed onto a stick, so you can easily eat it in the car on the way to your arteriogram. * Eggo Real Fruit Strawberry Granola Pizza – The last time I wandered round the HEB grocery store in Austin, I was agog at the sheer number and variety of frozen waffles alone. Now I discover that Eggo, the king of frozen waffles, has expanded into sweet pizzas? It’s almost too...

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